My own journey of faith began in the Free Methodist Church when I was a kid, and it has left me with a warm place in my heart for evangelical Christians. It is due to those sympathetic feelings that I am particularly disturbed that such a high number of evangelicals have hitched their hopes to the morally bankrupt man who is now our president.
Donald Trump has proven himself throughout his lifetime to be an adulterous, lecherous, mendacious, self-centered human being who has consistently abused and misused people to aggrandize himself. Of the medieval Seven Deadly Sins, he scores big on lust, greed, wrath, envy and pride — and the laxity in the way he carries out his presidential duties may also put sloth on the list. The only one of the seven sins for which he gets a pass is gluttony, unless one counts his ravenous hunger for high ratings and adoring crowds.
Yet, despite his appalling character, more than 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election and, according to recent polls, that support has not significantly slipped. Why?
During the campaign and in the months since, the news media have generally made the assumption that evangelical antipathy to abortion and same-sex marriage explains this paradox. But an analysis published by the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School finds that answer is too simple. Academic and writer Myriam Renaud, author of the analysis, looked at surveys of evangelical voters and found that, though pastors and other conservative religious leaders made a big deal out of the hot-button social issues and were determined to get solidly conservative justices appointed to the Supreme Court, the folks in the pews said they were far more driven to vote for Trump by fears of terrorism and concerns about their own diminished economic fortunes.
In other words, the motivations of evangelicals were not that different from Trump partisans who make no claims of fidelity to Scripture.
Still, the ideas being pushed by prominent evangelical pastors and TV preachers provide a comforting justification for the political views of those who are their congregants. A number of self-appointed biblical experts are peddling the theory that, though Trump is a deeply flawed man, he is an instrument of God, in the manner of ancient kings Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar whose actions benefited the Jews of old. As noted by a report in the Guardian, "Many evangelicals who voted for Trump continue to have an abiding faith in his presidency. Just as Cyrus returned the Jews to Jerusalem, and restored their wealth, so Trump, they fervently believe, will restore a lost world of personal safety, psychological security and material prosperity."
Televangelist Paula White, who delivered a prayer at Trump's inauguration, claims God intervened in the U.S. election to stop the erosion of religious liberty. Others in her business contend that Trump is a necessary corrective to the evils of Barack Obama. On his online radio show, televangelist Jim Bakker said, "Obama legalized witchcraft, sexual deviants getting married and schools started teaching transgenderism," and because of this, Bakker insisted, it will take eight years of Trump for America to get right with God. (Bakker also made the bizarre assertion that the recent benign and totally expected solar eclipse was the Lord's "punishment" for the Obama apostasy.)
In his personal life, Obama was about as morally upright and exemplary as any president this country has seen, but almost as soon as he was elected in 2008, the more fervent evangelical websites and radio shows were describing him as a tool of the devil. They even hinted that he might be the antichrist. Despite the fact Obama's eight years have come and gone without the hordes of Hell being unleashed, quite a few evangelicals refuse to give up on this scurrilous fantasy. And for some critics of the religious right, that raises questions about whether racial bias plays a role in white evangelicals' distaste for Obama and their admiration for Trump, who famously perpetuated the racist falsehood that Obama was not born in the United States and now enjoys the admiration of white nationalists and fascists.
I should note that a significant number of evangelicals do not see the Trump agenda as synonymous with God's agenda. They are politically engaged in defending the poor and protecting the Earth and finding ways to positively express the highest Gospel values in our fractured society. It appears, though, that far more of them have diluted their faith with a ramped-up nationalism and a libertarian economic philosophy that is far closer to atheist Ayn Rand than to Jesus Christ. Like pagan priests looking for signs in goat entrails, their preachers sift obscure lines from the Old Testament as a means of validating their political opinions. And even well-meaning evangelicals buy into these false prophecies rather than recognizing the verifiable truth — derided as "fake news" — that is right before their eyes.
Trump is no more God's chosen instrument than the eclipse was a sign of impending doom. He is president because of our political process. Evangelicals who continue to find no fault in the president should admit to themselves that it was not the word of God that guided their ballot last November; it was the angry rhetoric of a very worldly salesman named Trump.